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Telling my pregnancy story of pre-eclampsia to alert others – if you have any of these symptoms, get help immediately. I survived, but it could kill.
Until about 6 and half months, my pregnancy felt like a cake walk. I had no morning sickness, and no idea about what I was going to face soon. Then, I made the very stupid decision of traveling to Bangalore all the way from the west coast of USA for a seemantham.
The many little things that made up my lifestyle during the course of my stay in India has left me wondering about the factors that contributed to pre-eclampsia. I now know about some of the things I should not have done and some others I should have known better. So here goes the story of pregnancy.
The funniest thing is, my doctor gave me a letter saying it was safe for me to travel. But this is the slip between the cup and the lip, really, between what doctors say and what women actually experience.
The minute we landed in Singapore for a flight transit, I saw that my feet had become twice their normal size. This was probably due to air pressure and also due to the fact that I had sat in the same position for over 11 hours, with my feet down — I should have got up, walked a little, my doctor had told me that!
Swollen feet could have been seen as the first indication of possible pre-eclampsia but every article I read online said this was normal because the body had produced 50% more blood to cater to the baby. I had also had nosebleeds previously which were again explained as common during pregnancy.
Once in India, there was more salt in my food than there could ever have been in my own cooking or my husband’s. I was consuming much too less water and not as much as I would in my own home. Low water consumption can actually affect your baby extremely negatively during pregnancy. It was probably as a result of this that on a certain day I could not feel enough baby movements. When babies begin kicking, doctors ask us to count 15 kicks per hour over the course of 2 hours a day.
I got worried, visited an ultrasound center attached to a nursing home. The treatment there was quite harsh when compared to the nice “hellos” and “how are yous” I get in the USA. In the US, I would even be warned that the gel in the ultrasound would be cold! Ha, I would think, for someone from India, who meets obstacles every step of the way, this was all royal treatment. Looks like I had gotten used to this! So, when a lady in the ultrasound center in India literally ripped my pajamas off me, screeching a “take it off,” I wanted to postpone every interaction with the Indian health system. We visited a doctor with the scans who said all was well!
By chance, I visited an ayurvedic doctor, in addition, because I wanted to explore ayurvedic remedies for the postpartum period. This doctor, by merely touching my belly said that there was not enough water. I was asked to drink tender coconut water as much as possible. She ordered another scan but by this time we were a week away from returning to the USA, so we didn’t quite know what we should do. She asked me to do some pranayama, but I had become too heavy and fatigued to do even this. The heaviness of pregnancy is quite unbearable. Whoever wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being was definitely not a pregnant woman!
I might have walked too fast in India whenever we were out — the male gaze was particularly harrowing, you see. It was as if pregnant women should not exist or be out in public view! I spent a good deal of my time returning looks to teenaged boys and men of assorted ages. Walking fast is not recommended during pregnancy but the male gaze inspired that in me. Bad Indian roads did not help either.
In Bangalore, it was two cups of coffee every morning for my love of South Indian filter coffee. This might have been alright if I had had coffee throughout my pregnancy but I hadn’t. Coffee is known is spike blood pressure — leading effectively to pre-eclampsia. My anxiety for my baby’s well-being too increased when ill-mannered men stared at my belly.
On the flight back home, my nosebleeds got worse and I couldn’t breathe properly. I was so fatigued, I couldn’t get up to cook fresh food when we were home. Three days after we returned, I threw up at night. We put this down to the oily snacks we got from India that I had binged on! Self-diagnosis!
I developed a severe pain on my left side of the body that night which shifted to the right side and then became a super severe intolerable headache. This was the beginning of pree-clampsia — the real story of my pregnancy. But I did not know that yet. We had a doctor appointment a day later so I knew we would discuss this.
The headache was so unbearable, I could not sit or stand. I struggled without sleep till the next day, took a shower and went to see my doctor. At my doctor’s, my blood pressure showed normal, thanks to the hot shower I had taken just before getting there. A hot shower decreases your blood pressure — be aware of this.
I told my doctor about the vomiting bout, the oily food — she put it down as the same too. I said the pain in my body was insufferable — she said it was common during pregnancy.
I couldn’t believe my ears — I could not live with this pain for the next one and half months. I was only 7 and a half months pregnant then. The discussion was all about whether this was muscle pain or bone pain — she told me that if the pain moved then it must be muscle pain and dismissed it. No amount of arguing helped. I was due for a scan but the facility was busy so I was asked to come another day. My baby’s heart beat was checked and I was sent home.
The one question the doctor should have asked me that day but didn’t was: How would you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, my answer would have been an 8 or 9! Have you seen that chart hanging in doctors’ consultation room walls?
Over the next day, I suffered as I never had ever before in my entire life. I requested my mother on phone to get in touch with the doctors in India. I had had some water before the vomiting bout, so Allopathic doctors noted it and explained my vomiting as caused by drinking water too fast or too much. They could not explain my pain, its shifting from my one side of the body to the next and my headaches. Ha ha ha! I prodded my mother to see an Ayurvedic doctor but the doctor said she could not help without seeing me first. My pain was unbearable so my mother went to the doctors again.
By this time, we had realized that we were self-diagnosing. We asked my mother to tell the doctor that I was 7 and half months pregnant and had a severe headache — what was the diagnosis?
To our horror, the Ayurvedic doctor, my Allopathic doctor and another Allopathic doctor from India, a lactation specialist neighbor in the USA — none could tell me what was wrong. I borrowed pain killer medicines that were safe for the baby from the lactation specialist; I was not supposed to take more than 4 tablets a day. What would I do for the night, when the pain would kill me alright!?
A couple of days later, the Ayurvedic doctor suggested I mix coconut oil and ghee in equal measure and apply it all over my body and head. This brought down the pain a bit, but soon after the mixture wore off, I was back with unbearable pain! This was Day 3 of such crazy, unmanageable, unendurable pain. That night, we decided we had to go to a different doctor in the USA since my own had not believed me. It didn’t occur to us to call the triage nurse; we were just unfamiliar with the way the health system was set up in the USA.
The next morning, we went to an Urgent Care system instead of another doctor. The Urgent Care is not exactly 911 or Emergency but a level below these two. At the not-so urgent care, wait time was one hour only! That morning, I had showered for over half an hour — showering helped reduce the pain I had realized! It makes sense now but I did not know why.
The previous day, I had consumed coffee in the hope that it would relieve my headache, it did not help but instead spiked up my pain. I needed coffee now at 7 and half months to visit the bathroom, since my ability to develop normal bowel movements was hindered by the baby putting pressure and weight on my digestive system. Too many women suffer from this in the third trimester, yet I came to know of it only as I experienced it!
On most days, I eat one banana, but on Day 3 of my pain, we decided against it because I had had one throughout my pregnancy and I felt it might have been the causal factor for my pain. In truth, banana, which has magnesium would have reduced my high blood pressure effectively. I would still have had to rush to a doctor asap though.
On Day 4, the long hot shower helped me survive the hour-long wait at Urgent Care. The moment they saw me, my blood pressure was measured by a nurse, it had shot up to 180; 200 could have been fatal for me and my baby! The nurse rushed me in, called two doctors and a bandwagon of people followed. I was struggling in the bathroom and was requesting for coffee, you know why, when I was pulled out of it and given injections and tablets to bring the blood pressure down.
The nurse told me I had come to them at the right time; anymore delay could have been fatal and that I should thank the gods I pray to, whoever they are! It was the weekend, so the hospital decided they would have me until Monday morning and hand me over to my gynecologist then. They monitored my baby’s heartbeat round the clock, administered steroids so that my baby’s lungs developed fully at 34 weeks, which would otherwise still develop slowly in the subsequent weeks. These nurses were angels alright!
I kept saying I would like to go home now that things were under control, and no one told me that in cases of pre-eclampsia, there was nothing like blood pressure is down, go home and come back at month 9. The hospital didn’t want to break the news to me since they were not my chosen gynecologist doctors.
On Monday, not knowing what was in store, I sent my husband to work because he had been on leave for too long now. The hospital transferred me to my gynec and my registered hospital and lo and behold they check my baby’s ultrasound, walk around hurriedly and tell me the delivery is in half hour. I called my husband to rush there and was left asking everyone around me, “What happens in a cesarean?” Uff!!! Someone said I would be given an injection, I would feel no pain, the baby would be held up when it was taken out, I would be given the baby to hold for a few minutes, I would be stitched back up.
Out came my baby and I couldn’t feel a smile emerging from me, I just needed to be told over and over again that my baby was alright. It took me one full year as a full-time mom to relax about my baby. After 25 days in the NICU, when my baby came home, I didn’t sleep for the first 48 hours for fear that something would happen and drove myself so fatigued — that feeling — I sometimes think, hasn’t left me still.
At the hospital, the NICU doctor who had taken an ultrasound of my baby said my baby was underweight. They said that my baby received little nutrition from me in the past three weeks, the connection was lost and, it was better for it to come out to thrive.
Why did this not show up anytime earlier, in my scan in India or the other one in the hospital attached to the Urgent Care where I was at in the USA? They muttered something about this scanning machine and that one and that was the end of it. No more explanations. And this was USA, the best technology, best doctors from all over the world!
Pre-eclampsia is a condition caused by extremely high blood pressure that could be fatal for mother and baby if untreated in time. A headache is a sure sign of this problem. As was the shifting right only and left only body pain. I would have had a stroke if not for ending up at Urgent Care when I finally did. That is where the word ‘eclampsia’ comes from, ‘clamp’ as in a stroke. If you remember, the youngest sister in Downton Abbey dies from exactly this condition.
Sybil Crawley, who dies of pre-eclampsia in Downtown Abbey. Image is a still from the sitcom.
Today, it has a solution, but only if pregnant women are aware and contact their doctors immediately or rush to a hospital. When one has pre-eclampsia, protein is lost through the urine, which is not good for mother or baby. So, if you have swollen feet, bleeding noses, small baby indicated from an ultrasound or are overweight, be super aware, do not drink coffee, decrease salt, drink 8 glasses of water and, do not travel to start with. And never treat your headache with pain killer tablets and mask the pain. Rush to your doctor and ask for second and third opinions, better safe than sorry!
Not knowing what foods or what activities cause high blood pressure was my bane. My advice: do not travel when pregnant, not in the third trimester, not after 6 months, not even earlier if you can help it. Its fashionable nowadays to take a small celebratory vacation before 6 months into the pregnancy — I say, avoid it.
Information is everything for a pregnancy, but sadly there is not as much talk about these delicate matters in India as is required. In addition, my US doctor dodged my anxious questions and deferred suggesting a book to read saying that would only lead to anxiety and useless scientific information: I should rather enjoy and experience pregnancy. I did look up some articles online to quell my curiosity but they were clearly not enough as I would realize when it was too late.
This is why we are often told I suppose that we just cannot prepare enough for child birth and parenthood. My health profile consisted of Hypothyroidism, Low Vit D, after-35 pregnancy, being overweight, being on a small 5-meal plan, being somewhat petite and suffering from mild anxiety about pregnancy. I am not sure how and when each of these conditions contributed to pre-eclampsia but I got a mega-scare regarding my overall health, thanks to my pregnancy.
I also learnt through my pregnancy and the postpartum period that it is important to heed the traditional knowledge of India. The guar gum laddus with copra in them brought down gas, Shathavari helped, but I felt it should be accompanied by Ashvagandha lehya as well. The Indian understanding about baby boys being delicate is endorsed by science today and it is best to be extra-careful when carrying a baby boy.
Pre-eclampsia hits 5-8 percent of women, your mother may or may not have been affected by it, you may have had normal blood pressure your entire life — but in pregnancy your blood pressure is a different game — a life-changing one at that. The fact also is: Pregnancy is the most under-researched area of all of biology.
The birthing pangs were not my pregnancy story, the soft crying of my little one when she was born was not my pregnancy story, a painless caesarean was not my pregnancy story either — everything was highjacked by pre-eclampsia and it gave me such chills I still wake up to check on my baby every hour! Pre-eclampsia very likely also blessed me with a gall bladder problem, I need another surgery now! There is a long list of diseases women contract after pregnancy and due to it.
In short, pre-eclampsia has left me inclined to endorse all those ‘mere paas maa hai’ — family of dialogues and all that high drama some moms make about carrying a baby for nine months and taking great care of it for the first crucial 1000 days and blah blah blah! Oh, this life as a woman!
Image source: pexels
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